Ask anyone what the last two years have been like amid the global pandemic, economic slowdowns and the soaring cost of living and they will probably say “stressful”.
Stress doesn’t just affect our emotional wellbeing; it can have a disastrous effect on our physical health too.
As we mark World Heart Day today, the country’s Heart and Stroke Foundation is urging local residents to take action to avoid falling victim to one of the nation’s biggest killers.
“Stress can double your risk of a heart attack by increasing blood pressure to harmful levels. I don’t think that many persons are aware of this,” says Foundation president and consultant cardiologist Dr Georgette Meade.
“What makes things even worse is that when we’re stressed and depressed we don’t tend to eat in a healthy way; we choose high fat and high sugar foods even though we know they are harmful.
“Then there’s increased alcohol consumption, smoking and not resting well. It’s vital that we know how to manage our stress,” she explains.
World Heart Day is observed annually on September 29 to raise awareness of cardiovascular diseases and how to control them to negate their global impact.
Dr Monica Osborne-Stevens, of MOS Medical in Old Parham Road, is the latest health professional to join the Foundation.
She reports a sharp increase in the number of patients who are suffering from anxiety.
“I am seeing more people with anxiety than ever before. It used to be one every three to five months; now it’s every month,” she says.
“Work is the biggest cause. Broken relationships and the loss of a loved one can also lead to increased anxiety.
“The world was already stressed, and the pandemic – something we had never seen before – exacerbated this,” Dr Osborne-Stevens continues.
“Stress produces a hormone called cortisol which is supposed to help us respond to things in helpful ways. But if maintained to a high level it has a ripple effect, increasing blood pressure, blood sugar and blood cholesterol.”
Symptoms of stress and anxiety include palpitations or a feeling that one’s heart is racing, difficulty sleeping, headaches, and a reluctance to socialise and take part in activities one used to enjoy, Dr Meade says.
Difficulty concentrating and staying focused are also signs, continues Dr Osborne-Stevens.
A frank, open discussion with one’s doctor is crucial, she advises.
“And follow their advice,” Dr Osborne-Stevens urges. “Sometimes we don’t make the necessary lifestyle changes.
“It might sound obvious but you have to exercise and you must eat properly. These two basic archaic tenets are so simple, yet sometimes patients expect us to give them a magic pill and make it all go away.
“To get healthy, they have to put in the work.”
Identifying that one is stressed is the first step, says Dr Meade.
“We need to remove that stigma, so people feel comfortable reaching out and asking for help,” she notes.
“Yoga and meditation are great stress relievers. In Antigua and Barbuda, we are blessed with beautiful beaches and sunshine. Getting out in the fresh air, cycling, swimming, are all things that can help us relax.”
The Heart and Stroke Foundation was established in February 2020 to act as a voice and support system for patients and their families, raise funds, stage community events, and conduct local research into the prevalence of heart disease and stroke.
Dr Osborne-Stevens says she is “really happy” to be participating in its valuable work.
She has been a medical practitioner for 10 years and specialises in diabetes.
“I always want to help make a difference. Diabetes contributes to a lot of heart attacks so I am pleased to be able to bring my experience to the Heart and Stroke Foundation,” she says. “I love medicine and taking care of people. I have a genuine love for people. I think I was created for this profession.”